Genius, Vision, Ignorance and Expertise: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012

What is good global civic engagement? What are its assumptions regarding human dignity and emerging global community? How much expertise must global civil society participants exhibit, if any? How do our students’ study abroad experiences relate to their lives at home?  These questions were at the heart of Invisible Children’s (IC) Kony 2012. And these questions illuminate several insights from the emerging field of global service-learning, while also highlighting the difficult questions with which we continue to wrestle.

(I’d like to include an aside for regular readers: My apologies for not posting this earlier. Several editors seemed interested in this article, but ultimately didn’t want it in its full length, so I’m choosing to publish here).

Students Returning from Developing Countries often Struggle to Communicate

What possibly led three young men from Southern California to develop a global movement around what had been a typically obscure African conflict, at least in terms of its relevance to the American Public imagination? In one of the seminal works in the field of global service-learning, “A Chameleon with a Complex: Searching for Transformation in International Service-Learning,” my colleague Richard Kiely demonstrates the depth and intensity of sensed change that students report following experiences in developing countries – and the extent to which they struggle to communicate their changes to their friends and family members.

Kiely’s work systematically documenting that struggle in The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning lent credibility to an assertion made in Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad by Chip Peterson. There, Peterson asserted international educators too frequently treat reverse culture shock “as a sort of temporary pathology that we must help students work through, rather than one of the most pregnant learning moments students” ever experience.

Students frequently exhibit profound values and commitment shifts after visiting developing countries. Their realities are upset. What they understood as given in the world is undermined, no – exploded. What they had possibly memorized as data points – life expectancy, poverty rate, maternal mortality – is suddenly felt viscerally – and as such communicates an entirely different global possibility and human experience. Most students struggle to communicate these shifts to their friends and family members, but when the three IC founders returned from Northern Uganda, they didn’t worry about how to communicate their lessons learned – they were already talented filmmakers.

Jason Russell, one of the organization’s three founders, had recently graduated from the University of Southern California’s film school when the trio made their trip to Northern Uganda for the first time. Their response then – to make a film explaining their experiences – was actually consistent with what my colleagues and I encourage in global service-learning students: developing capacities to communicate their sensed commitment shifts to their friends and family. Typically, we do this through encouraging students’ elevator speech skills, requiring presentations back to campus and community, and otherwise systematically addressing the common disjuncture between what students’ loved ones expect and what students have actually experienced. The distance between so many American household assumptions and the realities of the developing world cannot be overstated. This distance includes both the reality of relative deprivations and unfamiliar injustices that IC highlighted so poignantly as well as the local innovation, resourcefulness, and strength with which communities respond – that IC under-emphasized at best.

Russell and his compatriots figured out how to communicate, but in doing so with such success they sacrificed some other essential assumptions. Unfortunately this distracted many of us from their otherwise interesting, even inspiring, claims relating to global citizenship and global civil society. And this may illustrate where a few more of the lessons learned through systematic research in study abroad and service-learning during the past several decades has been (or could have been) so helpful.

In study abroad, intercultural learning, and civic engagement the lesson is clear: skilled, guided, targeted reflective practice is necessary to help students process experiential learning as a component of developing more nuanced perspectives. Put another way, experience alone can cement stereotypes, reinforce biases, and replicate systems of power, privilege, and paternalism. One of the themes in the criticism of IC was that they – to put it mildly – insufficiently interrogated their own privilege, their whiteness, and the manner in which their materials often perpetuated stereotypes regarding helpless African victims and pure white saviors. That stereotype pins all of the hope and possibility outside Africa – and characterizes Africans as either heinous criminals or helpless victims.

The Assertions of Common Human Dignity & Global Community

Russell’s quick critics frequently failed to note the apparent ethos of IC’s movement. What do they have to say about global citizenship? Their narrative of universal rights literally captured a global public overnight. In the Kony 2012 film itself, Russell claims universal human dignity for each and every person – and he also claims that the whole world will be better if we can all do more to honor that dignity. He does this not through theoretical pronouncement, but through the stories of two children: his son Gavin and his friend Jacob, a Ugandan boy (now young man) he first met in Gulu in 2002. Russell skillfully guides his American viewing audience into thinking about children’s opportunities through first taking us into the delivery room where Gavin was born and asserting, “because he’s here, he matters.”

Once we’ve connected with the hope that comes with the birth of a child in the familiar environment of an American hospital, we’re introduced to another child, Jacob, and the abuses and deprivations he has suffered because of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. We want to do something to help Jacob, and we learn that Russell had the same emotional response, and that he and his friends have been doing many things: “We built a community around the idea that where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live.”

This is global citizenship. At least it is consistent with the first two components of Professor April Carter‘s suggestion that cosmopolitanism indicates a belief in equal human dignity, global community, respect for other cultures, and a desire for peaceful coexistence. Or Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s assertion that cosmopolitanism indicates, “Everybody matters: that is our central idea.

Beginning the film with the assertion of equal human dignity, Russell goes on to make claims about global community. Indeed he shows us how IC has been building global community when he interviews one of the IC activists at an event. That clearly inspired young man tells us, “I’ve talked to people from Mexico, from Canada, from every other state that I can think of. We’re all doing this for the exact same reason. And we’re all coming from completely different places.” Conflation of states within the American Republic and on the world stage aside, the audience is connected with the idea that people, everywhere (from every place this young man can imagine) are stepping up to help children like Jacob. We then meet an expert with a similar assertion. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, says of capturing Kony, “It’s bad for the world if we fail. It’s not important just for Ugandan people. It’s important for everyone.”

Between Russell’s intentionally inspirational story of self and Moreno-Ocampo’s expertise, the audience is led to a conclusion consistent with global citizenship thinkers, human rights scholars, and indeed the rationales underpinning the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court. That conclusion is quite simply that the assumption of common human dignity matters – and that we should build a world more in accord with that assumption. Russell then goes a step further, painting for us a vision of emerging global civil society that will help recreate the world into a more equitable and just reality with fewer abuses of power and more people connecting as equals across social networks. He narrates:

It’s always been that the decisions made by the few with the money and the power dictated the priorities of their government and the stories in the media. They determined the lives and the opportunities of their citizens. But now there is something bigger than that. The people of the world see each other and can protect each other. It’s turning the system upside down, and it changes everything.

This is beautiful, and not so distant from John Keane’s articulation of global civil society
as “an unfinished project that consists of sometimes thick, sometimes thinly stretched networks … and actors who organize themselves across borders, with the deliberate aim of drawing the world together in new ways.” Yet there was tremendous backlash. That points to another insight developing through the global service-learning literature: the importance of critically understanding power and privilege as part of efforts to achieve greater global justice.

The Need for Criticality

Rightly or wrongly, there’s a perception outside the academy that professors are excessively concerned with problematizing, deconstructing, unpacking and analyzing to the detriment of communities and individuals actually interested in real, tangible, and proactive change right now. This reputation was earned honestly, as part of reasoned responses to the clear lessons of international development history. That history gives us copious examples of arrogant assumptions run amuck, harming communities, creating dependencies, and destroying cultures. We must today learn the lessons not only of warnings from development arrogance, but also of yearnings for basic freedoms.

In a current article in Public Administration Review, Margaret Stout suggests today’s public servants must seek to pair deconstruction with pragmatic affirmation that is tentative and open to change. Citizens or, in global context – people, yearn to make a positive difference. They frequently wish to address injustices. But they must do so with some attention to history, complexity, and a reasonable understanding of likely unintended consequences. It’s precisely because of this challenging environment that my co-authors and I suggest critical global engagement as an approach to ethical global reflection and action in our upcoming Building a Better World: The Pedagogy and Practice of Global Service-Learning.

We suggest critical global engagement is a commitment to fundamental human dignity, couched in reflective understanding of historic and contemporary systems of oppression, along with acknowledgment of positionality within those systems; it connects with values, reflection, and action. Critical global engagement calls us all to humble, careful, and continuous effort to build a world that better acknowledges every individual’s basic human dignity.

This articulation, intended for individuals at home and abroad, rests on four assumptions. The first, familiar to human rights and global citizenship advocates, is the notion of common human dignity. The following three assumptions acknowledge and integrate the kinds of important critiques that befell Kony 2012. First, to the extent possible individuals should work to understand their positionality; that is, their power and privilege in interactions, along with efforts to understand how that power and privilege affects communication and perceptions. Second, following in the tradition of critical reflective practice established by Stephen Brookfield in adult education and advanced by Kiely within the service-learning literature, individuals should endeavor to understand how their assumptions are pre-determined by hegemonic discourses, and how those assumptions in turn often affect their analyses. Third, and this is where the filmmakers excelled: critical reflection coupled with a commitment to human dignity should move individuals to act.

Our assumption – based on significant cross-cultural community development experience as much as what we can learn from various development indicators – is that strong commitment to human dignity in today’s world will lead to changes. The film-makers saw that too – and they did oversimplify and even misrepresent, but we should also be concerned that the considerable backlash against them could serve to dissuade those young people whose hearts are set on building a world more in accord with justice.

I’d like to therefore advance two propositions. First, this discussion of criticality is not merely academic but should lead to more responsible actions. And second, we (academics, policy wonks, development workers) must reflect on and find better relationships between experts and citizens – in both domestic and international debates and policy.

Before skeptical readers see the articulation of criticality and throw their hands up at frustration with advancing academic problematization rather than tangible efforts in Northern Uganda, consider the following actions that could have reasonably followed from reflection on positionality, power, and privilege: (1) Including more Ugandan voices to demonstrate the considerable ingenuity Northern Ugandans have used to respond to their experiences and rebuild the North, thus presenting a more accurate picture of the currently peaceful region, its people, and its strengthening prospects for long-term stability; (2) Re-fashioning IC’s programming to more clearly tie funds raised to advancing locally-supported development efforts, thus pro-actively responding to the predictable critiques focusing on the relationship between revenues and the quality of life for Northern Ugandans today; (3) Without abandoning several of the simplifying moves that made the video an internet sensation, using the film makers’ talents and organizing abilities to draw young people into deeper and more complex understanding regarding development history, challenges, and viable solutions – all of which, importantly, point to the need for better portrayal of, empathy with, and reliance on local partners.

It’s easy to assert those possibilities in hindsight, of course. More fascinating for me is how three young men can enlist millions of citizens in support of international institutions’ efforts to bring relatively obscure war criminals to justice in an environment seething with distrust of those very same institutions – and in which two-thirds of college-age Americans cannot locate Iraq on a map. Looking at the history of successful global civil society activism – to abolish the slave trade within the British Empire, support democratic rights in the former Soviet Bloc, or advocate for those same rights against Pinochet’s authoritarian Chile – it is of course clear that the movements were not purely populated by experts.

Bridging Expertise and Idealism

Adding an international component to community development often amplifies questions central to development practice. Kony 2012 highlights the challenge of defining the appropriate relationship between experts and members of civil society.

Perhaps it is precisely because there are no clear rights to global civic participation that the immediate backlash from experts against the Kony 2012 video seemed surprisingly harsh. In an email exchange on the expert-citizen dichotomy in domestic civic life, my colleague at UMass-Boston, John Saltmarsh, shared these helpful reflections:

It is not that expertise is not important – it is – but it is a question of how expertise gets exercised. And it is a matter of not privileging expert knowledge over other forms of knowledge. Expertise, in this framing has to have respect for the knowledge and experience of non-experts (non-credentialed, non-academics).

It should be easy for any expert to make a layperson look foolish. That is not interesting. What has far more potential is the possibility of harnessing expert knowledge and ability to ask the right questions in service of movements dedicated to building a world that better recognizes human dignity and advances global community. What, precisely, will that world look like? We experts do not know either. Richard Falk writes of global citizen pilgrims
working toward an as-yet-unimagined tomorrow. As researchers, educators, and intellectuals with occasional public roles working for institutions that invariably claim to promote global citizenship, we should be asking ourselves how this youth enthusiasm for justice and universal human dignity leads us to opportunities for deeper dialogue on those assertions, along with the opportunity to foster critical understanding of each. I, for one, am thankful that IC briefly increased attention to these conversations.

Post by: Eric Hartman. In addition to being a co-founder of this website, Hartman holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaches at Temple and Drexel Universities. He visited Northern Uganda, and the Invisible Children offices there, in 2006. Since that time he has returned several times to East Africa, but has not revisited Gulu.

This entry was posted in Advocacy Campaigns, Africa, Films, Global Citizenship, Invisible Children, Power and Privilege, Representation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Genius, Vision, Ignorance and Expertise: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012

  1. Hi Bruce,

    Thanks for posting. I agree with you. What I’m asserting is that, as educators, we should (1) acknowledge the considerable research that demonstrates students struggle with international experiences and seek to communicate about those experiences in ‘helpful’ ways. As educators or experts, we should be guiding them to do that through (2) harnessing their enthusiasm for a more just world where all lives matter equally and doing so (3) with close attention to criticality. That criticality would introduce and examine thoroughly all of what you mention. It would ask them to temper their idealism with insights from history and from other movements. It would ask them to consider what responsible representation looks like. And it would ensure that they are in ongoing conversation with diverse local voices.

    These points above (1, 2, 3) are essentially my topic headings. I’m talking about principles of practice when considering youth justice movements that are frequently based in developed countries. So what you say about Uganda is correct, but I did not include it because these are principles of practice that draw on interaction and research with young people working in diverse communities around the world. If #3 were followed in this specific case, those Ugandan voices would have been (properly and far more completely) included in IC’s portrayal.

    My fourth topic heading relates to my suspicion that no matter how harsh the expert response to poorly directed idealism, young people will be stubbornly idealistic. That’s why I think it’s ultimately better to point out how this should have been done better than to focus on each precise thing it got wrong. In my view, the motivations came from the right place. We can do better, as experts and educators, at guiding and harnessing theses kinds of ideals.

  2. Bruce Wilson says:

    This discourse seems strangely removed from Northern Uganda. First of all, from 1996 to 2006, the Ugandan government had imprisoned the bulk of the Acholi population of Northern Uganda in euphemistically termed “displacement camps” that functioned, in reality, as concentration camps. Next, Uganda’s prolific record of human rights abuses, under the regime of Yoweri Museveni, is well documented.

    Further, Invisible Children’s approach seems less than popular in Northern Uganda:

    As reported in the Uganda Monitor (see “Kony 2012 video makers using us to make profit, war victim says”, April 17, 2012), on Friday April the 13th, 2012, during an official Invisible Children-organized screening of KONY 2012 part 2 in the Northern Ugandan city of Gulu, the audience became so enraged by the video that they started to pelt the screen, and IC organizers, with rocks.

    Ugandan police, in turn shot tear gas at the crowd and fired their rifles into the air, causing panic. One death and “dozens” of injuries were reported.It was the second riot, or near-riot, that Invisible Children’s videos have provoked in Uganda.

    From the referenced Uganda Monitor story:

    “Ms Margaret Aciro, whose picture appears in the Kony 2012 video showing her lips, nose and ears mutilated, has criticised the documentary, saying it is aimed at making money using victims of the northern insurgency.

    Ms Aciro, 35, abducted by rebels of the LRA in 2003 from Paicho Sub-county in Gulu Municipality, was among thousands of people who flocked Pece War Memorial Stadium on Friday to watch the filming of Kony 2012 by Invisible Children.

    “I watched the Kony 2012 video but I decided to return home before the second one (Kony 2012 Par II) because I was dissatisfied with its content. I became sad when I saw my photo in the video. I knew they were using it to profit.”

    The Catholic Archbishop of Gulu and member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, Rt. Rev John Baptist Odama, whose daughter committed suicide as a result of her treatment while kidnapped by Kony’s LRA, also had harsh words for the Invisible Children video screening:

    “This is catastrophic, it’s causing chaos. It is igniting more, actually, a situation of starting afresh the war. But now it is against the population. This film could have been prepared with a consultation. For example, the stakeholders could be consulted – “We would like to project a film like this, what do you think?” People should have been asked before, instead of having the film shown now.”

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